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July 6, 2023

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(NEW YORK)— In a new report on strategies by local journalists, community leaders and organizers to defend against the spread of disinformation to multiple groups—immigrants, non-native English speakers, people of color, and others—PEN America found that when cultural and community contexts are ignored, people inadvertently turn to less credible information, and that investing in trusted messengers can hold falsehoods at bay.

The report, titled Building Resilience: Identifying Community Solutions to Targeted Disinformation, provides critical insight for the 2024 election cycle by examining community strategies to defend against the spread of disinformation in Miami and South Florida; Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona. The report looks at examples of disinformation narratives that target people of color, immigrants, non-native English speakers, historically disenfranchised populations, and others, based on the 2022 midterm elections.

PEN America held town halls, conversations, round tables, and interviews with journalists, faith leaders, voting rights experts and advocates, researchers, and community organizers in the regions, starting in 2022. The goal was to gain a broad understanding of efforts to mislead the public and, as proven tactics came to light, to work with community leaders and local journalists to help build resilience to disinformation.

Sustained exposure to disinformation, especially when paired with a dearth of credible and inclusive local journalism-—tied to the crisis in local journalism that PEN America has previously documented—can have major consequences for individuals, public health and democracy. Voter apathy is inextricably linked to it.

Election-related disinformation is not always intended just to sway voters from one side to another or to depress turnout but can also be used for a broader nefarious aim: to undermine trust in elections, government, the media, officials, and democracy itself. The more disinformation proliferates, the more pronounced the effect. One of PEN America’s partners put it bluntly, “If people don’t understand how the system works, they don’t trust it.”

Kate Ruane, director, Sy Syms U.S. Free Expression Programs at PEN America, said: “Much of the conversation about how to counter disinformation pays insufficient attention to how people actually experience it, and ignores the underlying issues that make people more inclined to believe falsehoods. If we want to build communities’ resilience to disinformation, we have to address issues of trust in government and elections and strengthen the public’s access to credible information. Working with local leaders and journalists who are essential to information ecosystems is key to this effort.”

Hannah Waltz, manager, U.S. Free Expression programs at PEN America and lead author of the report, said: “Over and over our partners underscored the need for more collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches to disinformation that go beyond fact-checking and debunking and toward a more holistic practice. The intent is to foster healthy, culturally aware information environments and respond to different communities’ specific and practical information needs.”

Insights drawn from the convenings and research and featured in the report include:

  • News and information about elections and democratic processes need to be hyper-localized and translated into non-English languages.
  • Media and other institutions (e.g., government, advocacy organizations) need to take into account the cultural contexts of immigrant and diaspora communities. Ignoring cultural associations can lead to broken trust in the media, inadvertently turning people towards less credible sources of information.
  • Community engagement by journalists responding both to local needs and created in collaboration with relevant communities can help newsrooms better understand information voids and fill them with credible reporting that people trust.
  • Underrepresentation of communities in both the newsroom and in news coverage can alienate those communities and open doors to disinformation.
  • The mechanics of democracy, including elections, are not discussed enough on non-English language television and radio. Especially for those who may be new to the U.S., this lack of exposure and civic education can open a door for mis- and disinformation about the functionality of American democracy.
  • Convening groups from a variety of disciplines—local journalists, community organizers, academic researchers, librarians, and faith leaders—can help develop messaging strategies to get out ahead of election disinformation narratives.
  • Disinformation often merges with broader antidemocratic and xenophobic narratives, but the line can also be blurry between disinformation and simple “dirty politics.”
  • Many participants spoke candidly at the regional forums about why disinformation spreads in affected communities.

Leonie Hermantin of the Haitian Community Center Sant La in Florida said underrepresentation of communities in both the newsroom and news coverage can alienate them and open doors for disinformation: “What’s glaring for us is the absence of our stories in the mainstream media, that our stories only percolate when there’s a crisis, so we are always viewed as a community in crisis, and that gets people very angry, makes people very isolated, and makes people even more vulnerable to believing the fake news and the misinformation out there.”

Others said cultural context is key in reaching communities with information that speaks to their unique needs and their frames of reference prioritized.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdia, founder and chief strategy officer of We Are Más in Florida, said reporting and messaging about American politics and democratic processes—without appropriate appreciation of cultural context—can quite literally get lost in translation. For example, the word “progressive” is regularly used to describe a part of the American political spectrum and some American politicians. But in Spanish it translates as “progresista,” which for many of Cuban, Venezuelan, or Colombian origin has strong connotations with the communist or socialist regimes they fled.

Wilkine Brutus of Miami’s NPR affiliate station WLRN said people often have legitimate questions about elections or other issues and if journalists and officials don’t take those concerns seriously, others will fill the gap. “Having one-on-one conversations with constituents and community members who are in the throes of navigating mis/disinformation–and employing empathy along the way–can be one way to locate specific, localized narratives that often get a lot of mileage.”

Partners shared tactics that they believe are working. The nonprofit Texas Tribune used text messages for quick access to information about elections and voting. María Méndez, service and engagement reporter at the Texas Tribune, said: “Community engagement and service journalism means getting to know the information needs of your audience, and what additional context or help they need to understand big political issues.”

Indigenous communities reporter Shondiin Silversmith based on Navajo Nation said community reporting requires an understanding of the communities covered and a basic grasp of tribal governments and how they operate as sovereign nations. “If you don’t [have that] then it will be a lot harder to tell the story accurately,” she said

PEN America’s work on disinformation started in 2017 with its report, Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth. A 2019 report, Truth on the Ballot, focused on disinformation in the 2018 midterm elections. The organization surveyed 1,000 journalists and found 81 percent viewed disinformation as a serious threat for a third report in 2022, Hard News: Journalists and the Threat of Disinformation,

PEN America’s key partners include: Venezuelan American Caucus, Cubanos Pa’lante, and Factchequeado (Florida); Dallas Public Library, the Potter’s House Church’s Ministry in Civics, Black Voters Matter, and Fort Worth Report (Dallas-Fort Worth); The News Co/Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, InSite Consultants and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and news outlets Conecta Arizona and Votebeat (Phoenix). PEN America developed partnerships with local organizers, community media specialists, journalists, librarians, and faith leaders.

The report was supported by a grant from the Quadrivium Foundation.